Yerkes: Link to the Past, Hope for the Future

Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center may be the most controversial and the least understood component of Emory University. It's also one of the most exciting. It has been the scene of discovery for biomedical and behavioral scientists; a fertile learning ground for students of various disciplines from anthropology to microbiology; a home in the forest for faculty and staff, secluded yet very much linked to a thriving university campus; an animal kingdom where veterinarians and primate caretakers have cared for, learned from, and become attached to some of the most magnificent creatures on earth.

To many in the community, it is an old friend; to others, a curious anomaly. It's an enigma to the uninitiated, yet in the world of psychology, the Yerkes name is a familiar one, synonymous with many firsts in the field and in development of primate handling and care techniques.

Yerkes has lived with these varied perceptions for some time, though never have they been more apparent than in the past year. It's been one of Yerkes' most fruitful periods ever in terms of new scientific programs and significant increases in grant funding. Simultaneously, it has been one of the center's most tumultuous eras, with animal rights protests at their most contentious and employees grappling with the tragedy of the death of a fellow employee from herpes B virus.

The past four years, in fact, have been a time for significant change at Yerkes under the soft-spoken but visionary leadership of Tom Insel. What was once an institution exclusively focused on primate research is home now also to a diverse group of scientists, from molecular biologists to psychologists, working to pioneer new treatments for AIDS, vision loss, drug abuse, Parkinson's disease, and cardiovascular disease - and searching for greater understanding of human and primate evolution.

Funding breakthrough discovery

The goal for all research at Yerkes is to make breakthrough discoveries, says Insel. To do that, Insel has worked with Yerkes scientists to develop strategic goals, such as developing an AIDS vaccine and a medication for cocaine addiction, and finding ways to finance the center's initiatives.

The center increased funding by 31% in 1997 and expects to do even better this year, which is extremely important for Yerkes, since all of its research funding comes from outside support, the majority from National Institutes of Health (NIH) peer-reviewed grants. "We are the only component of Emory that is entirely devoted to and dependent on basic research. We have no tuition or clinical revenue," Insel says, "and we don't have alumni or grateful patients whom we can approach for fundraising. We're not financially supported by the university, and we have no endowment. So we have to count on our scientists to compete successfully for support money. If we don't get grants, we're out of business." Last year's research income of nearly $11.3 million was second only within the university to School of Medicine funding.

Yerkes is linked to NIH in another way. It is one of seven institutions that together make up the NIH Regional Primate Research Program. All serve as national resources which are designed to foster scientific study for improving health by collaborating with researchers who want to work with primates. Yerkes' scientific faculty currently consists of 150 researchers, representing Emory and 20 other universities and institutions.

Model of collaboration

Just the facts:

>> Yerkes Regional Primate
Research Center is the oldest
scientific institute in the world
dedicated to primate research.

>> 60 research programs cover
a wide range of science and
medicine, including AIDS, drug
abuse, cardiovascular disease,
Parkinson's disease, infantile
blindness and adult visual
impairment, and evolution of
peacemaking and conflict
resolution in primates.

>> The primate colony totals 2,800,
representing 11 species. The
rhesus monkey is the most
common animal at Yerkes. Yerkes
is the only primate center with
the four major great ape species
(common chimpanzees, bonobos,
gorillas, and orangutans).

>> All Yerkes gorillas and many of
its orangutans are on loan to
zoological parks. Yerkes
collaborates with the San Diego
Zoological Park and several other
zoos in the conservation of the
bonobo chimpanzee.

>> Animals receive 24-hour care
from four clinical veterinarians,
four veterinary technicians, a
registered nurse, and 50 primate
care technicians.

>> The Yerkes Center is fully
accredited by the Association
for the Assessment and
Accreditation of Laboratory
Animal Care (AAALAC), whose
certification is regarded as
the gold seal of approval for
laboratory animal care.

>> A total of 150 researchers,
representing Emory and 20 other
universities and institutions, are
members of the Yerkes Center's
scientific faculty.

Collaboration by primate centers with affiliated scientists at other institutions is an important criterion in the eyes of the NIH officials who oversee the primate centers program. Similarly, collaboration by Emory scientists across traditional departmental boundaries is an important goal in the Woodruff Health Sciences Center's strategic plan. Yerkes has progressed significantly in the past two years to increase integration with other campus departments. Today, nearly every core scientist at Yerkes has a joint appointment with an Emory department, and Yerkes has been a large contributor to the health sciences center's strategic planning process.

"Each of our large initiatives - the AIDS vaccine effort, neuropharmacology research, and the Living Links Center - is interdisciplinary in nature and design," Insel emphasizes. "They would not be possible without involvement from the entire campus: the college, the schools of public health and medicine, and The Emory Clinic."

The new vaccine research building, currently under construction at Yerkes main campus, is a good example of such collaboration: It will serve both Yerkes and medical school investigators. The center will help ease the ubiquitous need at Emory for laboratories by providing 70,000 square feet of new research space - labs, offices, a large seminar room, and a rodent vivarium. (Yes, Yerkes is a primate center, but many researchers also use rodents for their studies. Indeed, many scientists at Yerkes never use animals at all, but focus on molecular studies of a virus or patterns of gene expression in tissue culture.)

The Emory Vaccine Center, led by immunologist Rafi Ahmed, will bring together some of the nation's best immunologists and virologists to work on infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, influenza, and malaria. Many of these scientists will focus on AIDS, under the direction of virologist Harriet Robinson, who became chief of Yerkes' Division of Microbiology and Immunology a year ago, after 10 years at the University of Massachusetts. "Yerkes was an irresistible combination," says Robinson. "I had worked with rodents, chickens, and lots of other animals, and was ready to work with primates. Coming here also gave me an opportunity to be one of the architects of a brand new program."

A pioneer in vaccine development for retroviruses, Robinson is internationally known as the first person to demonstrate that purified DNA can be used as a vaccine. DNA vaccines have since become the wave of the future, as they are safe, inexpensive, and stable, showing great potential for delivery, especially to third world nations.

Immunologist Mark Feinberg, considered one of the top physician researchers in the field and a veteran of the Office of AIDS Research at the NIH, joined Emory last fall. Feinberg and Robinson will translate the nonhuman primate AIDS research to clinical trials. Also new here is John Altman, who came from Stanford University to continue his developing novel reagents to identify T-cells that respond to pathogens. He recently used this technique to isolate and characterize killer T-cells against the AIDS virus. Immunologist Jeff Safrit, previously at Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center, will examine cellular immune responses in HIV and SIV vaccine trial subjects.

Thus, Yerkes is embarking on a remarkable new era, thanks to strong leadership, the promise of new facilities, access to animals, the recruitment of some of the world's best scientists, and most important, the university's strong commitment to its programs. Also, the Georgia Research Alliance, a partnership among business, academia, and government, has played a key role in supporting Yerkes' pathbreaking biomedical research and in bringing biomedical and information technology opportunities to Georgia.

(continued below)

The idea for the first center for primate studies took shape in the early 1920s, with the indefatigable energies and curiosity of Robert Yerkes, a respected psychobiologist at Yale. He was intrigued by questions surrounding the origins of intelligence. His specialty was the study of cognition, memory, and learning.

Yerkes spent most of his career working with primates. As good a salesman as he was scientist, he convinced Yale to purchase 200 acres of land in Orange Park, Florida (permitting year-round, outdoor animal housing), thus establishing the Yale Laboratories of Primate Biology in 1930. In addition to cognitive studies, he and his colleagues there pioneered the study of primate reproductive and social behaviors, as well as sensory processes.

Yerkes' far-ranging vision, meticulous planning, tireless research, and considerable administrative skills helped shape the facility into the premier center in the world at the time for animal science, neurobiology, and psychobiology. As a scientist of national renown himself, Yerkes had no trouble attracting talented researchers to his facility, including two who later won Nobel prizes.

After Yerkes' death in 1956, Yale decided to discontinue its pursuit of primate studies so far from its Connecticut home and approached Emory as a possible buyer for the center. Emory agreed to take over the facility for the bargain price of $1. It remained in Orange Park until it was transferred - equipment, researchers, and 160 animals - to Atlanta in 1965.

The move was a result of a national science boom, in full swing during the 1960s, a golden era of funding. The polio vaccine had been developed and perfected, thanks to trials with nonhuman primates, finally laying to rest one of the biggest health fears of the postmodern world. The frustrating experience of creating the vaccine had turned national attention on the need for research resources. Politicians were convinced of the importance of having an animal model ready for the next big epidemic.

Boisfeuillet Jones, then assistant to the Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, played a major role in the effort to develop a structured federal program for biomedical research with primates. The Emory alumnus and former dean assured lawmakers that Emory, with the animals and experience already in place, was an obvious choice for participation in the program.

Looking Back

Pioneer in Primate Research: Psychobiologist Robert Yerkes, shown above in 1923, founded the world's first center for primate studies. He was among the founding fathers of neuroscience.

Vision, cocaine, and appetite

Clearly, the researchers share the stage with the primates in making Yerkes unique. There are 11 species and nearly 2,800 primates at Yerkes' two locations. The Yerkes main center houses the biomedical laboratories and lies adjacent to the greater Emory campus. Yerkes field station, located in Lawrenceville 30 miles from Emory, doubles as behavioral research site and breeding facility, with about 300 live births there each year. At the field station, the animals live in 25 different compounds in a semi-naturalistic setting.

The field station breeding facility made possible a major scientific breakthrough on how vision develops in newborns. By studying rhesus monkeys (which have visual systems identical to that of humans), researcher Ron Boothe, chief of the visual science division, found that a dramatic reorganization of brain cells occurs in the first three weeks of life, corresponding in humans to the first three months of life. These neural connections are building blocks of a healthy visual system, allowing for the ability to see three dimensionally, and as years go by, to avoid irreversible visual defects. Both human and monkey infants make these vital brain connections only with the help of visual stimuli from the world around them. If a baby fails to receive normal visual input in the first three months - usually due to undetected visual defects at birth, such as cataracts - the baby will suffer vision problems for life.

Previous vision research in this area had been conducted only on monkeys who were several weeks old, already past the critical "neonatal sensitive" period.

Boothe's research with these neonates sends a clear clinical message for humans: newborns should be screened carefully and treated immediately for cataracts or other eye problems.

Many other programs at Yerkes are destined to have important impact on clinical care, and some could have important social benefits as well. Prominent Yerkes neuroscientist Mike Kuhar, whose recruitment was enabled by the GRA, is chief of the Yerkes Neuroscience Division. Kuhar's work on devising a new medication to treat cocaine addiction could eventually help not only individuals in need, but society as a whole. Crack cocaine addiction has serious implications for crime and violence in the nation and abroad, exacting a huge cost on society. Kuhar was responsible for identifying the dopamine transporter system as cocaine's cellular target in the brain. He has studied a new class of compounds, called phenyltropanes, which alter the same neural system but are thought to have a lower abuse liability than cocaine as well as minimal side effects. Several of these drugs are candidate medications to relieve craving for cocaine.

While conducting studies of how cocaine alters gene expression in the brain, Kuhar's team identified a new neurotransmitter that helps control appetite and perhaps satiety. He hopes that eventually this will prove useful in treating obesity, which is often at the root of other health problems such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Living links

Nonhuman primates are the living links to our past. Building on its heritage of pioneering behavioral and cognitive research, Yerkes recently established the Living Links Center, devoted to better understanding the connections between humans and apes.

The center brings together scientists who will use the latest research tools to look at behavior and hominoid evolution in new ways. The studies will compare humans with our closest living nonhuman relatives. Researchers will use advanced techniques in genetic testing; MRI and PET imaging for neuroanatomical studies; computer programs specially designed at Yerkes for chimps to use, for measuring their learning, memory, and cognitive processes; and studies for observing the social life of apes. The center also will have a field component with research and conservation missions.

The Living Links Center is in many ways the brainchild of former Emory Provost Billy Frye, who admires the work of Yerkes behavioral scientist Frans de Waal, known worldwide for his studies on reconciliation among chimpanzees and their complex social system. Frye thought human evolution an important subject, and that with Yerkes' chimpanzee colony and de Waal's expertise, it was time to invest and make Emory a preeminent institution in the field.

Frye helped secure a commitment for start-up funding, and de Waal is currently recruiting new faculty members. The Living Links Center has received support from the university and the Templeton Foundation, which works closely with scientists, theologians, medical professionals, philosophers, and scholars. The center has also requested NIH funding for studies on aging.

Living with controversy

Apes - which includes the chimpanzee
(shown here), bonobos, gorillas, and
orangutans - are not monkeys, says
Yerkes Director Tom Insel. Like humans,
apes belong to the hominoid family.
Man split from apes about 5 million
years ago, and monkeys split from
hominoids about 23 million years ago.
Monkeys have tails; apes do not.

Chimps are large, with adult males
weighing an average of 155 pounds.
They are incredibly strong, with muscles
five times as dense as a man's. So dense
they can't swim.

Amidst the shine of exciting science, new buildings, and highly sought-after recruits are the difficult challenges that come with biomedical research - including the opposition of those who don't believe in the propriety of scientific research involving animals. Although representing a relatively small segment of the population, individuals and groups that decry the use of animals in research have received considerable media attention. And while there are more than 1,200 American institutions working with animals in the quest to improve health, the primate centers tend to receive the brunt of the negative attention.

"If you have 'primate' in your name, it acts as a lightning rod," notes Tom Gordon, associate director for scientific programs, who has seen activism ebb and flow in his 27 years at Yerkes. Activists have increased their violent demonstrations and damage to property in the past several years, and groups who monitor their actions say it's because the public is becoming bored with the message.

"The activists feel they have to resort to more drastic measures to get attention," says Emory police chief Craig Watson. The fact that Yerkes is in a fairly large media market, with CNN in its back yard, certainly plays into the protesters' decision to hold some national demonstrations here. "If we were still in Orange Park, nobody would pay a bit of attention," says Gordon.

The claim by activists that alternatives exist that could replace research using animals, such as computer modeling and tissue culturing is simply wrong, says Gordon. "A computer model is only as good as the data you put into it. Where do we get the information to feed into the computer? From living systems. And where does the tissue come from? From animals. Using a tissue culture is useful for certain situations but can provide only limited insight into the biological interactions of systems within a living organism."

Another point often overlooked is that research on animals has been essential to improving health for animals as well, Gordon says. Vaccines for rabies, distemper, and feline leukemia were developed through animal research. And interestingly, the guidelines for conducting research on animals are considerably more stringent than those for research on humans.

Veterinarian Harold McClure, chief of the division of research resources, seems to speak for the entire Yerkes community when he says he is troubled by the hostility that some animal rights activists direct at him and his colleagues - people who care deeply about animals and devote their lives to improving health. "Research and care technicians could earn more money in easier jobs. They do it because they want to be near the animals," he says.

One Yerkes researcher is seeking outside funding for a project to conserve howler monkeys in Belize. Some Yerkes staff take personal vacation time and pay their own expenses to travel to the rain forest to work on his project. "Hacking through the bush in sweltering temperatures to locate monkeys that can swing with ease along the top of the canopy is challenging, to say the least," Gordon says. Others are gathering supplies to send to Indonesia to help orangutans suffering from the fires there.

Balancing risk

If you have 'primate' in your name, it acts as a lightning rod.

The most difficult moment in Yerkes' history was the death last December of a young research assistant from complications of infection by the herpes B virus, six weeks after what she considered a minor eye exposure while working with rhesus monkeys at the Lawrenceville field station. The tragedy devastated friends and co-workers and deeply saddened the primate research community nationwide, every member of which must consider every day risks associated with working with nonhuman primates.

The virus occurs naturally in macaque monkeys but can be fatal in humans. Infection of a human with herpes B is extremely rare: there have been only 40 cases reported worldwide since the virus was discovered 75 years ago. This was the first reported case in which the virus may have been transmitted through an eye exposure.

After a 19-week investigation, the Office of Safety and Health Administration fined Emory/Yerkes for noncompliance with OSHA standards. Emory and Yerkes are contesting those allegations. Yerkes and Emory administrators remain firm in their assertion that Yerkes not only conformed to all the current standards of safety and protection at the time of the incident, but that in fact, Yerkes was an active participant in creating those standards. The guidelines adopted by the rest of the industry (primate centers, pharmaceutical companies, zoos, primate sanctuaries) were drafted at workshops convened by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in collaboration with Emory/Yerkes faculty.

These guidelines, which established the recommended safety practices and personal protective equipment worn by employees, reflected the state of scientific knowledge at the time. "OSHA's failure to recognize this and to ignore the evidence presented resulted in citations unwarranted by the facts, the scientific knowledge, or safety standards followed by other primate facilities," says the Yerkes statement.

Other primate centers concur. "This tragic incident could have occurred at any primate facility," says Pete Gerone, director of the Tulane Primate Center and dean of the primate center directors. "We all used similar procedures and, with respect to eye protection, all have modified practices in the aftermath of the death at Yerkes." Other research centers now commonly follow these practices, which avoid all direct handling of nonsedated animals.

At the time of the employee's infection and in Yerkes' 68-year history, no employee had ever contracted the virus or suffered serious injury from any of its primates. "The infection of the Yerkes employee was the first documented case of infection via [eye] exposure, and consequently changed our knowledge of the virus and routes of exposure," says David Davenport, a leading clinical expert in the treatment of herpes B.

To underscore its commitment to workplace safety, Yerkes has accelerated its ongoing development of a herpes B-free monkey colony. This costly and labor-intensive project was started in 1991 to further reduce risk to workers. It's expected to take at least a decade, but funds have been committed to speed the timetable as much as possible. The center also plans to make development of a herpes B vaccine for monkeys a priority in the new vaccine program.

In this Issue

From the Director  /  Letters

Yerkes: Link to the Past,
   Hope for the Future

Build It and They Will Come

Putting the PhD in Nursing

Moving Forward  /  Noteworthy

Facing Death and Dying

While no research endeavor is risk free and safety training can help minimize the dangers, even low-risk situations can have dire consequences. Safety always is a primary focus. But still there are risks. "Ultimately these risks can never be eliminated," Insel says. "They can only be balanced for each of us by knowledge of the importance of what we do for both human and nonhuman primates."

For Yerkes Primate Center, this is the best of times, though tempered by a tragic loss. The center has built brilliantly on its heritage of excellence and is poised to make great new contributions to health and the care of humans and animals. Yet everyone involved at Yerkes continues in their work with a heightened awareness of the personal risks inherent in what they do.

Other unique challenges remain, including that Yerkes will continue to be a regular target for protest. But to the many people both inside and outside of Yerkes, the wild animals whose calls echo through Lullwater Park at feeding time may hold the key to solving some of the mysteries of human evolution and the difficulties of the human condition. "On balance," says Insel, "each of us is committed to doing our part to ensure that the promise of this vital work is fulfilled."

--Kate Egan
Chief of public relations,
Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center


Because great apes are generally not used in biomedical research at Yerkes, zoos from Atlanta to San Diego are benefitting from permanent loans of Yerkes' gorillas, orangutans, bonobos, and chimpanzees.

Closest to home, Zoo Atlanta has a long history of collaboration with Yerkes. Since 1988, 16 Yerkes gorillas and six Yerkes orangutans have been on permanent loan to the zoo, residing in the Ford African Rain Forest exhibit. Yerkes gave the animals to the zoo in 1988 - a critical time, when the zoo was undergoing a huge revitalization effort led by zoo director Terry Maple.

A primatologist and now a psychobiology faculty member at Yerkes, Maple came to the zoo from Georgia Tech in 1985 specifically to reinvent the Grant Park facility. Soon after, the lone gorilla at the zoo, the famous Willie B, was moved outside to the new habitat and was joined by the Yerkes gorillas to comprise the largest exhibit of gorillas in the country at the time. The group has been prolific, with nine new offspring since the renovation.

The zoo habitat with its growing family of primates has offered Yerkes scientists a rich source of behavioral data, and in turn, Yerkes faculty have lent their expertise to the zoo. The Zoo Atlanta Board of Directors reserves a slot for a selected Yerkes faculty member as scientific adviser - currently Tom Gordon, associate director for scientific programs and chief of the division of psychobiology. Other faculty retain close ties with the zoo in conservation and enrichment programs. Yerkes also contributes to the Species Survival Plan, a national effort to maintain genetic diversity of endangered captive species.

While successful in relocating many of its great apes, Yerkes is still looking for homes for about half of its 200 chimpanzees. "The chimps are both a wonderful asset and a difficult problem," says Yerkes Director Tom Insel. "Almost everywhere, biomedical research with chimps has been declining steadily and with it, the research funding that was once available to feed and care for chimp colonies." There is now a surplus of chimpanzees, which can live for up to 60 years, but little money to support them. The few existing sanctuaries for these animals already have all the chimps they can handle. Each chimp at a facility like Yerkes costs about $16 per day to maintain.

"This is one frustrating issue," Insel says. He points out that animal rights activists constantly call for moving the animals to sanctuaries, but so far have not put any money toward building sanctuaries or expanding existing ones. "If both activists and scientists would work together, we might reach the common goal of creating permanent, naturalistic homes for the animals. But so far, most activists have shunned any involvement with members of the scientific community, regardless of the goal."

Going to the Zoo

Yerkes gorillas Machi and her baby Kashata, age 4, along with Kekla (back) and MiaMoja live in Zoo Atlanta's Ford African Rain Forest.


Copyright © Emory University, 1998. All Rights Reserved.
Send comments to the Editors.
Web version by Jaime Henriquez.